Art does not always imitate life. When it comes to hip-hop, disgraced rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine’s recent testimony in a Manhattan courtroom is proof of this. The fact seems lost on law enforcement officials who weaponize rap lyrics to convict artists, according to a recent article by Briana Younger in The New Yorker.
Dennis is co-author of a professor at the and the co-author of “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” due out in November.
It is a problem exclusive to experts say. “We have searched widely, and, based on our research, rap is the only fictional art form treated this way,” University of Georgia School of Law professor Andrea Dennis told The New Yorker. “No other musical genre and no other art is used in the same way or to the same extent.”
Putting rap on trial to make their cases against hip-hop artists is not a new strategy. Examples range from high profile cases like those of rappers YNW Melly, Jamal Knox and Mac (McKinley Phipps Jr.) to Virginia rapper Antwain Steward and Olutosin Oduwole, an aspiring artist and college student who was arrested, charged and convicted of attempting to make a terrorist threat.
As Dennis and her co-author Erik Nielson have noted in the description of their book, Johnny Cash was not put on trial for his infamous line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” in his song “I Hung My Head.” However, Cash had white privilege on his side.
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Most hip-hop artists do not. According to The New Yorker, since most rappers are Black and brown men, racism plays a role.
“The admissibility of rap lyrics and videos as evidence is often framed as a legal matter, but it is really about race. By introducing the work of a rapper into the courtroom, prosecutors are relying on racism to do its job—insisting that those in the courtroom accept, as fact, the worst kinds of stereotypes about this music and the people who make it,” Younger wrote.
This ongoing problem has cost numerous artists their freedom and livelihoods. It’s why songs like N.W.A’s “F**k The Police” remain so relevant among Black people today. It captures a plight long-faced not only by rappers, but young Black men in general.
“We live in a time when music videos are treated as irrefutable evidence in court, but real-life cell-phone footage of police killing an unarmed person is met with skepticism and suggestions that we should doubt our eyes. The hypocrisy relies on racist ideas, in both cases, about who deserves their rights and humanity,” Younger wrote.
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